In late January, a Frontier reporter travelled to a remote, conflict-hit area of Bago Region to cover the distribution of relief items to Karen IDPs – and then the Tatmadaw launched its February 1 coup.
I learned about the February 1 military coup earlier than most. At around 2:30am, I fumbled in the darkness to answer my buzzing phone. I suspected that it would not be good news.
“They’ve detained the government and seized power,” a friend from Yangon told me breathlessly down the line, having just heard it from sources in Nay Pyi Taw and Kayah State.
Unlike most, though, I was not in the comfort and safety of my own home when I got the news.
Two days earlier a colleague and I had set out from Yangon for Kyaukkyi Township in eastern Bago Region. We planned to cover the distribution of relief supplies to Karen people in the Karen National Liberation Army Brigade 3 area displaced by recent clashes with the Tatmadaw.
We’d been invited by members of the Karen Youth Network, which has been providing the IDPs with food and clothing. The volunteers had been calling for donations since clashes erupted in the area between the KNU and the Tatmadaw on January 19, and we’d travelled to Kyaukkyi in a four-car convoy carrying 18 Karen volunteers and three reporters.
But delivering supplies in this conflict-hit area is not easy. The road to our destination – the village of Mu Thae – had numerous checkpoints manned by Tatmadaw and KNLA soldiers. While the Karen National Union, the parent organisation of the KNLA, was happy to grant permission for the relief activities, the Tatmadaw had been more reluctant, KYN member Saw Khu Blute Moo explained to us.
“There are several KNU and Tatmadaw checkpoints on the way and if we travelled without the Tatmadaw’s permission we might get shot, despite having the KNU’s approval,” he told us.
We left from Kyaukkyi for Mu Thae at about 6:30pm on January 30 but about an hour into the journey a KNLA soldier ordered the convoy to stop beside the road because there was fighting ahead. We had to spend the night in the nearest village, Poe Thar Hsu, which we reached after a 45-minute walk through the darkness.
Resident Saw Sar Hay said fighting in the area was common. Fifteen days earlier, he said, residents had returned home after fleeing to the jungle to escape clashes.
The whole of the next day we remained stuck in Poe Thar Hsu due to further fighting. The KYN volunteers said they hoped the conflict would abate the next day, February 1, so that we could continue our journey early in the morning.
But the Tatmadaw’s coup d’état would force us to change our plans.
When we left Yangon, we knew there were tensions between the Tatmadaw and the civilian government. That said, we didn’t expect the Tatmadaw to seize power while we were in a remote, conflict-ravaged region.
When I got the news that morning, I woke the volunteers and my media colleagues to let them know what had happened. They scarcely believed me until they confirmed the information by calling friends and relatives.
My mind was racing. I called colleagues in Yangon and we speculated on how the return to military rule might affect our work. I recalled childhood memories under the earlier military dictatorship; the future seemed bleak. At 6am the mobile networks were shut down, only adding to our foreboding.
We wanted to follow news about the coup, but because only solar power is available in Poe Thar Hsu we had to wait until after sunrise to turn on the television. Instead, we borrowed a radio from a local and listened to a Tatmadaw announcement about the coup on the 9am news.
In the evening, mobile service resumed so we could finally contact our families and friends, who we were sure would be concerned about our safety.
The internet was still down, though, which limited our ability to access information on what was happening. “We are totally in the darkness,” said one of the volunteers, echoing my thoughts.
Later that evening, we managed to regain some internet access – even if it was painfully slow. As we learned about what had happened, one of the volunteers said he hoped ethnic armed groups would launch operations to force the Tatmadaw to relinquish power.
Tensions were already high between the KNLA and the Tatmadaw in eastern Bago Region and northern Kayin State, where clashes had erupted in December.
Then, on February 2 – a day after the coup – the KNU issued a statement calling for the release of government leaders and declaring that it stood with the people and rejected the coup. It added that it would continue fighting for self-determination for the Karen people.
After the KNU released the statement, some Karen youths in Poe Thar Hsu village who had previously received military training left immediately for the KNLA Brigade 3 area. At about 8.30pm, villagers told us Tatmadaw soldiers had entered villages in the area looking for anyone who wasn’t a local and advised us to leave.
We split up into groups of two and were put into local houses. The families had agreed to give us temporary refuge and we pretended to be their relatives. Some of the volunteers hid in a nearby field.
On the morning of February 3, villagers said the Tatmadaw had installed extra checkpoints on the road leading to Poe Thar Hsu.
We decided to hire a car and try to return to Yangon immediately. En route we passed three police checkpoints and a Tatmadaw checkpoint, where soldiers speaking Burmese asked about our destination.
We pretended to be Kyaukkyi residents who did not speak Burmese well. The driver told the soldiers we needed to travel to Yangon for health reasons, and two minutes later we were on our way. These checkpoints were new – we hadn’t encountered them on the way to Kyaukkyi.
“The situation has changed,” the driver said. “We are under the Tatmadaw again.”